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CNN BREAKING NEWS

Supreme Court Rules 5-4 in Favor of Affirmative Action

Aired June 23, 2003 - 11:01   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

FREDRICKA WHITFIELD, CNN ANCHOR: A landmark case from the U.S. Supreme Court today involving the University of Michigan, and it involves their admissions policy as it relates to race and ethical backgrounds, and that involves their law school, as well as their undergrad admissions.
Jeffrey Toobin has been along with us from New York, helping us to understand their landmark decisions.

Jeffrey we have these two decisions, and the University of Michigan is celebrating the decisions, saying this really does give them a great model to apply at the university, given the law school is allowed to maintain their admissions policy.

How do you see it?

JEFFREY TOOBIN, CNN LEGAL ANALYST: Well, I think the university is right about that. The real risk to the university was that the court would say, you simply may not consider race at all, period. The admissions process has to be color blind. The university did not say that. They said that the law school program where race was one factor among many, where each student was considered individually based on all of his or her attributes, that was OK. What the court rejected was the more blanket policy of the undergrad program where a point system gave a specific number of points to each student for being a racial minority. The court said that was not the kind of individual treatment that the Constitution required and that was rejected.

You know, I'm making it sound like these opinions are perfectly complimentary to each other. There will be many people, I assure you, who say they are simply contradictory and the court left itself a mess.

WHITFIELD: And so do you feel like it promoted more confusion, because already, affirmative action to many groups was a confusing topic. Some calling it a quota system, others saying it was a way in which to level the playing field.

TOOBIN: I think lots of lawyers will get lots of business trying to interpret these decisions. So I'm sure they're less than a model of perfect clarity. But I think the basic message is that affirmative action is alive, is permissible, will be important one and will be heard across the country, and I think that will be the headline. How it actually works in practice will be difficult to work out. But the idea that universities, businesses can promote diversity in a real and aggressive way, that is a principle that survives today's ruling. WHITFIELD: So would you imagine that a lot of corporations who have been closely watching this case may now be so listing some information or perhaps advice from the law school policy on how it is going about promoting diversity and how corporations might be able to apply a similar tactic?

TOOBIN: Absolutely. One of the things that was interesting about this case is that affirmative action, which was seen as sort of a progressive kind of left-wing cause when it began in the '60s and '70s, was embraced by large corporations in the Supreme Court. You had briefs filed in support of the university by Microsoft, by General Motors, hardly bastions of liberalism.

But what may have swung the court most of all was a brief frequently discussed in the oral argument of the case. Several retired military officials, including General Shakasvili (ph), who was chairman of the joint chiefs of staffs under President Clinton, said we believe affirmative action is important to the military, and the court seemed very moved by that in the oral argument. They did not want to go against the military. And they didn't. And they allowed affirmative action to survive.

And I think the degree to which affirmative action has become kind of an establishment cause was one of the real reasons the court decided the way it did.

WHITFIELD: All right, Jeffrey, thanks very much. Don't go far. Very outspoken were many of the students on the Ann Arbor campus, and Jeff flock is kind of taking a poll from many of the students there who are also celebrating this as a victory, aren't they, Jeff?

JEFF FLOCK, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, indeed they are, in some ways celebrating, Fredricka, but I've got a group here, and feel free to gather in, folks, discussing what the victory is, though, because how the law school does it may not be viable for how the university -- how many kids? 20,000, 25,000 applications a year?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Something like that. There's a lot of undergrad applications. And what I think is really important today is that the court said diversity is a compelling state interest for admissions. The university takes into consideration where you're from, you're interest, all sorts of factors. And I think that taking race into consideration certainly is very important, and it's very important that the court upheld that.

FLOCK: Lydia Milton (ph), who is a grad student here, you've got 25,000 applicants. At the law school, they look at each individual application separately. Is that possible for such a large number on the undergrad side?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: It is impossible. We're not sure exactly what it would look like. But we're confident that the university will diversity the student bodies coming in.

FLOCK: Aiesha (ph), we talked earlier. You said you still don't think the university is diverse enough? UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Well, I believe the diversity is a microcosm of society, and if we only have less 4 percent of Hispanics at this university and we see more than that in the population, clearly, the university is a direct reflection of society.

FLOCK: But if it reflects it directly, that's a quota, right?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: No, I'm not asking for a quota at all, and I'm not saying just because there's 3 percent here, that it should directly reflect, what the society -- what the target number, but we believe that diversity is a (UNINTELLIGIBLE), and we should continue to increase it.

FLOCK: Farul (ph), I've to ask you, if somebody gets in who didn't have as good a score as you did, for example, and you don't get in, and didn't have as good a record as you did, and you don't get in, is that fair?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: You can't judge it by fairness in that way. There's just too many factors that lead to admissions. It's not just race that the university takes as a factor. There's many, many things. There's socioeconomic status. There's where you live in the country. People are -- I think people are overinflating the race issue. There's too many factors.

FLOCK: Maybe I should have put that question to you, Rob, because you are the one sort of white male here. If you didn't get in, even though you had better scores than somebody, wouldn't that make you mad?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: No, actually not. There's two things. The first is a majority of the students, I believe, who apply are qualified to come here. So it's not a matter of just picking the most qualified. It's a matter of building a good student body. And also, my SAT scores varied over 150 points in six months. I don't believe that that test and conventional standards of academic merit are, you know, race blind. I think that they reflect other factors.

FLOCK: I appreciate it. Appreciate the time.

Fredricka, as you can hear, the debate goes on. This is not done by any means, and we'll continue to watch it.

Back to you.

WHITFIELD: All right, Jeff Flock, thanks very much. Nice cross- section of students there, with some great thoughts.

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